Complexities and Messiness: Race, Gender, Disability and the Carceral State (Part II) – The Feminist Wire

Complexities and Messiness: Race, Gender, Disability and the Carceral State (Part II)

By Carolyn Tyjewski

The BlackLivesMatter movement was founded on the premise that we should centralize the most marginalized within the Black liberation movements of old. Specifically, the movement intends to center “Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” I’d like to place emphasis here on race, gender and disability. As I stated in Part I, the extent to which Stevens’ criticism is already being used by some Disability Rights activists to create a divide between them and #BlackLivesMatter is disconcerting. Infighting amongst our communities helps neither community survive.

Disability Rights activists and #BlackLivesMatter have a common cause. Sandra Bland had a disability. There is a need to discuss in cases such as this how disability impacts the treatment of African Americans or, more specifically, African American women. In other words, we should scrutinize a case like Bland’s in relationship to not only race and gender but also disability. Examining the carceral state from this perspective can lead to an additional set of questions and narratives as well as highlight different sets of problems. But it can also zero in on policies and procedures that can potentially change the entire structure in ways that might otherwise not be addressed.

I mean to note social structures writ large here, beyond, for example, state structures like the carceral state and other state institutions. I am also drawing attention to the interconnecting/interlinking of structures, to include state structures, and institutions, which contribute to violence, for example, the medical institution’s “contribution” to police brutality. In other words, these questions can potentially help us think about and, potentially, address the combination of state and non-state structures because, ultimately, the combination is what’s killing us. Not just the state. And, within these non-state structures there are policies and procedures in place that can be addressed or, at least, questioned. 

How, for example, does disability impact Sandra Bland’s treatment within Waller County? She announced at the scene just after being thrown to the ground that she had epilepsy and requested medical attention. Head injuries can affect epilepsy. So, what type of care did she get? Based on the audiotape from the patrol car, it would appear the officers at the scene did not take her that seriously. Did she get treatment? If so, did the medical staff provide her with quality care?

In July of this year alone, there were at least 5 Black women who died while in custody. At least three of these women (including Sandra Bland) had a disability. One of these was Raynetta Turner. On July 27th, in Mount Vernon, NY, Turner was found dead in the cell she’d been placed in after returning from the local hospital. Like Bland, she reported to the police that she had several medical conditions (disabilities), including hypertension and complications from bariatric surgery. She requested medical treatment and was eventually taken to the local hospital. According to reports, she was kept overnight and released back into police custody the next day. A few hours later, she was found dead.

Officers at the jail insist that they believed she had been asleep all that morning, which may or may not be true. What we do know is hypertension can be exacerbated by undue and/or extreme stress, as can certain complications from bariatric surgery. So, what role did the medical industrial complex play in this death? Did Turner get quality care while she was in the hospital? Did she get released too soon? How does racism, sexism, and ableism, in relationship to interaction with the carceral state and the medical establishment, affect the outcomes in these cases? How did the interaction between these intersections and these two institutions potentially lead to Bland and Turner’s untimely deaths?

Frequently, requests for medical care are ignored and/or delayed within the prison system. According to Evelyn Patterson’s “The Dose-Response of Time Served in Prison on Mortality: New York State, 1989-2003,” for every year spent in prison, a person’s life expectancy decreases by two years. In “Characterizing Medical Providers for Jail Inmates in New York State,” Shaley, Chiasson, Dobkin, and Lee studied the type of providers different county jails used to care for their inmates within New York State. They were able to find “some relationships between the medical service provider and both county characteristics and correctional characteristics.” What they found was:

The sizes of both the county populations and the jail populations were inversely related to the use of local providers. In other words, smaller counties tended to contract jail medical services to local physicians and physician groups. We noticed a strong trend for counties with a larger proportion of Black and Hispanic jail inmates to contract with either a public entity or a for-profit corporate vendor. No correctional medical corporations were found in counties designated as nonmetropolitan.

This trend becomes even more apparent when one examines the numbers related to this observation. According to the article, out of 57 counties only 8 contracted private medical corporations to provide care for their inmates outside NYC. They go on to state:

However, in contracting with larger jails, correctional medical corporations provided medical care to more than one fifth of NYS county jail inmates. In NYC, approximately 90% of inmates received care from a correctional medical corporation. Our analysis suggests that these corporations tend to serve the same types of jails served by the public sector: large urban jails with a high proportion of non-White inmates.

While Shaley, Chiasson, Dobkin and Lee never suggest there is a difference in quality of care between the choice of “local physicians and physician groups” and “public entity or a for-profit corporate vendor,” given the numbers, one should be questioning the discrepancies in the choice of care for the inmates based on race alone. To complicate matters further, the medical establishment is, ironically, not equipped to deal with/handle/care for Disabled people. As the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) points out:

The ongoing gap between legal theory and on-the-ground practice results in people with disabilities being far more likely to receive a range of poor responses when seeking healthcare, from outright denial of care to inadequate care to bad treatment, and the problem behind these responses can be rooted in the existence of physical or procedural barriers, the holding of stereotypes and ignorance about people with disabilities, and actual hostility and prejudice.

In other words, the people the medical institution relies the most upon for a steady income, the ability to get research grants, etc., are the very people who are the least likely to get care due to ableism. And, racism within the medical establishment isn’t any better. According to Vernellia Randall, even though we have worked for at least the past 54 years to reduce discrimination and racial segregation within the healthcare system, a lack of quality care to no care and/or less aggressive medical care of minority patients occurs and this impacts Black women far more than any other racial group. As Randall states:

Cultural incompetence of health care providers, socioeconomic inequities, disparate impact of facially neutral practices and policies, misunderstanding of civil rights laws, and intentional discrimination all contribute to disparities in health status, access to health care services, participation in health research, and receipt of health care financing.

In many respects, the problems between Disabled and Black communities are similar if not identical. Or, at least, they would appear so. So what does this mean for the Disabled Black woman? Like with many other results of complex intersectional discriminatory processes (ex. educational opportunities, income inequality, job opportunities, etc.), Disabled Black women are the hardest hit by the medical practices and policies within the carceral state. We must consider how this affected Turner’s life chances, particularly when she went from that Mount Vernon jail to that local hospital. Did Sandra get to go to the hospital that day? And, if so, how was she treated? What are your chances when you roll the dice as a Disabled Black woman dealing with both the carceral state and the medical industrial complex?

Examining these intertwined experiences not only adds a layer of understanding to what may be occurring in these types of cases but also provides a means of questioning police procedures and other institutional policies that would otherwise not be available were we to only look at this from a strictly raced or abled or gendered or classed, etc. perspective within these white supremacist state sanctioned structural violences. In other words, when dealing with race, gender, disability, and other marginalizing categories, particularly when addressing police brutality (or the potential of it), the medical establishment’s provision of care and/or quality of care should also be discussed/questioned.

I do hope that the BlackLivesMatter movement will begin to place emphasis here. As Garza and others have pointed out, the BlackLivesMatter movement is still evolving. There are many things that still need addressing. To be sure, these types of criticisms are necessary to move forward in a constructive and more nuanced fashion. It’s important to tease out how race and gender and sex and sexuality and disability, etc. work in concert to create and maintain systemic state violences in all forms and functions. However, supposed allies attacking each other because Sandra Bland’s or Kindra Chapman’s or Joyce Curnell’s or Ralkina Jones’ death isn’t being used to push x agenda only helps the white supremacist power structure’s divide and conquer strategy.

What I propose to all concerned is if one truly wishes to be a part of a movement such as BlackLivesMatter, one should provide critical information and corrective criticism that adds to the potential critique of the institutions rather than attacking our brothers and sisters in the movement. I can’t assume, for example, that Garza knows the statistical data on the medical industrial complex’s racist and/or ableist practices, but I can provide that information. And, information can, in turn, lead to a more complex set of questions, concerns, and demands of the racist system that is, quite frankly, killing us all.

Carolyn Tyjewski is an activist, scholar and writer for well over 20 years. She has degrees in Black Studies and English from Ohio State University. While at OSU, Carolyn, along with many other minority student leaders, created the first class action form of civil rights complaint ever submitted to the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. This successful disability discrimination complaint led to a series of similar and successful complaints filed against OSU by various minority communities. As an independent scholar in Black Studies, Critical Disability Theory, Critical Race Theory and Disability Studies, some of her work includes: “The Male Rapunzel in Film: The Intersections of Disability, Gender, Race, and Sexuality,” co-authored with Johnson Cheu (Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture. Eds. Elwood Watson and Mark Shaw. Bloomington: Indiana UP. 2011), “Ghosts in the Machine: Civil Rights Laws and the Hybrid ‘Invisible Other’” (Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy and Law. Eds. Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin. Vancouver: U British Columbia Press, 2006), “Hybrid Matters: The Mixing of Identity, the Law and Politics” (Politics and Culture. Eds. Amitava Kumar and Michael Ryan. Issue 3, July 2003), “On Identity and Invisibility: The Tragic Mulatto Theme in Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca” (Disability Studies Quarterly. 20 (Summer 2000), and various creative non-fiction pieces like, “Learning Within the Lines: Disability, Education and Possibilities,” co-authored with Johnson Cheu (Delirium: An Interdisciplinary Webzine of Culture and Criticism. Disability Culture Issue. 1:4, May 2002).